Monday, September 7, 2009

H is for Hangi

If you’ve read anything at all about the Maori people of New Zealand, you’ve probably heard about a hangi – the traditional Maori of cooking underground via steam. The hangi is still a popular way of cooking and certainly, on a marae, it is really the only practical way of cooking for large numbers of people who gather for hui (meetings), tangi (funerals) and celebrations. Hangi is about celebration. You don’t have a hangi for no reason. It is a celebration of tikanga (custom) and whanaungatanga (kinship). “From a cultural point of view, ‘hangi is us’,” one kaumatua (elder) told me. “I don’t think we could come up with an improvement on the hangi – it encapsulates the whole concept of bringing our whanau together.”
I recently attended a big hangi at Tuahiwi Marae just north of Christchurch – it was to be the basis of the last kai (food) feature for Ngai Tahu’s TE KARAKA magazine. Buy the time I got there – early in the morning, well before the celebrations were due to begin, the men had already dug the hangi pit and the hole (around 2ft deep) had been fired up and river stones and bits of old railway iron were heating in the flames. Willow wood is a popular choice for the fire because it burns cleanly, leaving little ash and greywacke stones don’t crack in the intense heat. The team had gathered watercress from nearby streams and this was being kept wet in buckets prior to being thrown onto the heated rocks to create steam. It also lines the hangi baskets to act as a barrier between the food and the stones to prevent the food burning. In the absence of watercress, wet cabbage leaves are a common substitute.
The fire usually burns for about two hours. Then the big wood, the large rocks and the iron are taken out, and as many embers as possible are removed from the pit. Too much ash and embers in the bottom makes the food too smoky. Once the food has been loaded into wire baskets lined with watercress, the rocks and irons are put back into the pit and covered with watercress. Huge clouds of steam rise and the men work fast, stacking the wire baskets on top, draping them with wet cloths and sacks and then quickly burying the pit in dirt. That is then left for about four hours – by then everything should be cooked beautifully. On the day at Tuahiwi we had a tremendous feast. I’ve already posted some images from the kitchen preparations on the day. If you’d like to see those, just click on hangi or Tuahiwi in the label line below this post.

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